Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has widened his lead in Iowa over Hillary Clinton and John Edwards heading into Thursday's nominating caucuses, according to The Des Moines Register's final Iowa Poll before the 2008 nominating contests.
Obama's rise is the result in part of a dramatic influx of first-time caucusgoers, including a sizable bloc of political independents. Both groups prefer the Illinois senator in what has been a very competitive campaign. Obama was the choice of 32 percent of likely Democratic caucusgoers, up from 28 percent in the Register's last poll in late November, while Clinton, a New York senator, held steady at 25 percent and Edwards, a former North Carolina senator, was virtually unchanged at 24 percent.
The poll reflects continued fluidity in the race even as the end of the yearlong campaign nears. Roughly a third of likely caucusgoers say they could be persuaded to choose someone else before Thursday evening. Six percent were undecided or uncommitted.
The poll also reveals a widening gap between the three-way contest for the lead and the remaining candidates. No other Democrat received support from more than 6 percent of likely caucusgoers.
The findings mark the largest lead of any of the Democratic candidates in the Register's poll all year, underscoring what has been a hard-fought battle among the three well-organized Iowa frontrunners. It is also the only recent poll of Iowa caucusgoers showing Obama with a lead larger than the survey's margin of sampling error, which is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
The telephone survey of 800 likely Democratic caucusgoers was taken Dec. 27-30.
In an indication of the Obama's appeal in Iowa, Democratic caucusgoers say they prefer change and unity over other leadership characteristics. Selecting a candidate who represents a sharp departure from the status quo is 56-year-old Lansing Democrat John Rethwisch's priority, and his main reason for backing Obama.
"I have been seeing more and more something Kennedy-esque coming from Obama," said Rethwisch, Lansing's water and sewer administrator. "But it's always a gamble when you get somebody in there who hasn't got a proven track record."
Thirty percent of the poll's respondents said a candidate's ability to bring about change is the most important, followed by 27 percent who said their priority is choosing a candidate who will be the most successful in unifying the country.
Asked which candidate would do the best on these themes, caucusgoers most commonly name Obama. The first-term U.S. senator has argued in the closing weeks of the campaign that his newness to Washington, D.C., would help him bridge a politically divided nation and improve its standing overseas.
Having the experience and competence to lead, which has been the crux of Clinton's closing argument, was seen as the most important to 18 percent of caucusgoers, with Clinton as the candidate most commonly rated best on this trait.
The candidates routinely argue they are the best able to win in November, although only 6 percent of the poll's respondents identified being best able to win the general election as the top priority.
Rethwisch is also part of the majority of caucusgoers who plan to attend their first caucus Thursday. Sixty percent would be attending for the first time, reflecting the emphasis the campaigns have put on expanding the pool of participants.